Not all innovation makes things better. I doubt that WWI would have been as bad if not for the invention of guns. If soldiers had still used swords in 1914, it seems unlikely that trench warfare would have dragged on for 4 years, with nearly 10 million deaths.

At the same time, war has been around for thousands of years, and the percentage of humans dying in war seems to be trending downward over the very long run.  So technology is not the primary problem.

This story on cancel culture in China made me wonder whether social media is sort of like guns, a dubious form of “innovation”:

Censors have not only kept their grip on entertainers with rules. Lately, the very nature of the modern Chinese internet, a hyper-commercial place patrolled by thin-skinned bullies, is helping them succeed. This is a perilous time to be famous in China. In the first few weeks of 2021, fans, prominent bloggers and state media have united to rebuke so many celebrities that a recent item on Tencent News, an online platform, was headlined: “The era of stars saying sorry is upon us: whatever you did wrong, apologise.” Those who have said sorry this year include an actress accused of abandoning two infants born via surrogacy in America and a comedian who made a sexist advertisement for women’s underwear. Other apologies have come from a comic actress who posed in a cardigan over the caption “husband-snaring gear”, leading to charges of objectifying women; and from a 20-year-old Tibetan horseman caught smoking on camera. Months earlier his good looks and shy smile had shot him to fame and helped him into a job as a goodwill ambassador for his hometown.

When market forces help the Communist Party to rule

Chaguan spoke recently to entertainment-industry veterans. They described famous friends on medication for depression, and explained why. Once, stars were on show only when they made a new film. Now, fans want to scrutinise every detail of actors’ lives on social media, and expect perfection from their idols.

Back in 1968, there were massive student protests in places as diverse as the US, China, Mexico, France and Czechoslovakia.  Within each country, people focused on the specific factors motivating domestic dissent, and thus missed the bigger picture of how modernization was reshaping society.

Within the US, cancel culture is often seen in narrow parochial terms.  Woke people trying to impose their definition of anti-racism, or conservatives trying to cancel professional athletes for insufficient patriotism.  But I wonder if that misses the bigger picture.

People have always wanted to physically harm other people, and guns provided a more effective way of doing so.  People have always wanted to verbally bully and shame other people, and social media gives them a more effective tool for doing so.

It’s not surprising that the US and China have cancel cultures; what would be surprising is if there were a country that did not have cancel culture.

PS.  Tyler Cowen links to a study suggesting that things are getting worse in America:

The worsening physiological and mental health profiles among younger generations imply a challenging morbidity and mortality prospect for the United States, one that may be particularly inauspicious for Whites.

I’m agnostic on the question of whether happiness in America is increasing, decreasing, or staying about the same.